But first let me tell a little anecdote from the annals of neuroscience. One of the giants of 20th century behavioral neurobiology, Norman Geschwind, a great generalist, was teaching at Harvard. He'd developed many pathbreaking theories about localized functions and neurological diseases. One day a hotshot resident saw a new patient, a young man. His prior diagnosis was temporal lobe epilepsy. The resident took the young man's history, noted the medications, dosages, asked him a bunch of questions, then went to Geschwind, who was with a bunch of other interns. This resident probably wanted to show up the great Geschwind, because it was Geschwind's theory that temporal lobe epilepsy was marked by four tell-tale signs: humorlessness, neophobia, hypergraphia, and an excess of interest in religion, particularly in the philosophy of religion and belief. But when the resident asked the young man with temporal lobe epilepsy if he was religious, the young man said no. The resident told Geschwind I think maybe you're wrong about TLE: He writes a lot, seems fairly serious and humorless, and afraid to try new things, but this kid says he's not religious. He doesn't fit your profile. Geschwind couldn't believe it and immediately went to meet the young patient, the other residents in tow.
Geschwind, to the young man: Are you religious?
Young man: No.
At this point, the young man launched into an hour-long disquisition on Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, the problems brought up by Martin Buber in his book on God's treatment of Job, inconsistencies in The Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. He had to be stopped in his speech.
Now, back to Philip K. Dick, whose science fiction books questioned the nature of "reality" and brought up sociological questions about epistemology rather than the physics of space travel. He was often quoted as saying his one unique contribution to science fiction was the idea of the android that thinks it's really a human, which you've all seen in movies by now. (Ex: Blade Runner.) Speaking of movies: if you're reading this, thinking, "Why am I reading about some guy I've never read, or barely heard of?," you may not know it, but you're a fan if Dick, if only via the movies. See this article from Cracked, on how Dick's insanity/writing has influenced film...
Here's a variation on an old joke: A guy is being interviewed for a job and everything's going fine. The interviewer says, "Sounds good. Just one more bit of business and we're through. I have to ask you a few basic questions about mental health. Have you ever been depressed, agoraphobic, felt alienated and angry, been hospitalized for a nervous condition, used psychedelic drugs, felt a sense of depersonalization, or suffered from anxiety, vertigo and dizzy spells?"
And the applicant replies, "Hasn't everybody?"
Only with Philip K. Dick (PKD), it wasn't a joke. He'd felt all this by his late teens. He'd been hospitalized. He dropped out of Berkeley High School because of dizziness and anxiety. This was the late 1940s, and it seems likely that a well-meaning doctor prescribed PKD amphetamines in the early 1950s. By the time PKD died he'd written over 40 novels, very many short stories, essays, thousands of long letters, and a sprawling, massive thing now called The Exegesis, in which PKD tried to make sense of an overwhelmingly odd mystical experience he had in the early 1970s.
To coincide with the 30 years since PKD's death, a version of The Exegesis has finally been released to the general public. See reviews HERE, HERE, and HERE, for example. Okay, the book's release date was last November, but the buzz over it really got louder in time for PKD's death date, March 2nd. (And how the editors managed to whittle PKD's unique "book" down to only 944 pages is a marvel, but I digress...)
Since his death, PKD - once thought of as a "hyper-paranoid pulp fiction hack" - has become one of the most lucrative writers for Hollywood, his worldwide readership has flourished, and there seems no end of scholarly books and articles on him. Irony? In 1950s Cold War Unistat he'd crank out three novels per year, at three cents a word, for science fiction paperback publishers who thought of the genre as "the golden ghetto."
Note in the Slate article I link to above PKD is quoted as saying the "best psychiatrist I ever saw," Dr. Harry Bryan, told him he couldn't be diagnosed "due to the unusual life I led."
Anyone who has read a handful of PKD novels and some biographical data (I heartily suggest Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin, although some Dickheads will protest) cannot help but get the feeling of something unheimlich about PKD. But what was "really" going on with him, from a neurobiological standpoint?
The neurotic young man who is prescribed speed by a doctor, and who then goes on to write over 40 novels (18 in the decade of the 1950s!) while slowly coming unhinged (speed seems more than enough, right?) always seemed like the best guess. In an interview David Jay Brown did with cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling in Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, Sterling suggest PKD should've done psychedelics instead of speed. I think PKD's weirdness started long before that, and any drugs he did would only be self-medicating. Just my opinion, as of the date above...
PKD had about as many ideas about himself as one could possibly imagine, so if the Reader is inclined to go with that, fine. I have always thought it remarkable that so many of his friends, friends who are writers themselves, acolytes, and exegetes, seem to think the question of PKD's "disease" relatively unimportant. The fact is: he wrote some staggeringly wonderful work, and has touched the lives of untold millions.
But weirdos like myself like to ponder. I have talked to people who assumed PKD did too much acid. He's often thought of as a counterculture writer from Berkeley and the Bay Area. But according to Greg Rickman's Philip K. Dick In His Own Words, a work based on interviews with an astute admirer, PKD only took LSD "two or three times," and not until 1967. His output was already prodigious and weird before that.
Sutin discusses the possible TLE of PKD on pp.231-233 of the aforementioned biography.
Not long ago the prolific and superb non-fiction writer Clifford Pickover came out with a book titled Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen, which attempts to diagnose people like Telsa, Newton, the mathematician Paul Erdos, Einstein, Theodore Kaczynski, and many others, based on the latest understandings from neurobiology. Pickover pegs PKD as having temporal lobe epilepsy, and I wish Dr. Geschwind were here to weigh in, but he died in 1984, before reaching the age of 60.
Pickover cites the hypergraphia and the philosophical religiosity (in full-flower in the just-released Exegesis), and Pickover - unquestionably some sort of genius himself, with a PhD from Yale's Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry who pours out one fascinating non-fiction book after another, have a look at his works soon, if you haven't already - hasn't totally convinced me about PKD's temporal lobe epilepsy. According to Geschwind, those with TLE also tend to be markedly humorless, and PKD seems to have had a sense of humor, amid paranoia and other health issues. He seems to have shared a few laughs with Robert Anton Wilson, and they found humor in many of the same conspiracy theories and others' theorizing about conspiracies.
Also, according to Geschwind, PKD should've been neophobic if he had TLE, and I'm not sure how to evaluate that. Certainly he had problems with agoraphobia, but he also had five wives. And he seemed fearless in trying to understand the uber-extraordinary things that happened to him, including a bizarre burglary of his house.
It could be that the problem with fitting a life into DSM-IV-like terms is to take words as things, to fall into the trap of essentialism. And to forget that almost all neurobiological oddities fall on a continuum. And then maybe PKD's "best psychiatrist" was right: PKD can't be diagnosed due to the unusual life he led...
In the end, I'm with most of PKD's "Dickhead" admirers: all this seems trivial when you wade into the Work, and what it does to You. When I picked up Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and then most of the rest of his oeuvre, I was never the same. That was the most I could've asked of PKD, and he delivered in spades. As Sutin writes, "How far do such speculative diagnostics and groupings take us?" And then Sutin quotes William James: "To pass a spiritual judgment upon these states, we must not content ourselves with superficial medical talk, but inquire into their fruits for life."
Philip K. Dick: READ HIM!
Lots of good audio stuff on PKD here.
"Ragle Gumm"'s blog on PKD here.
Ted Hand's blog-journal, with lots of good PKD insight, is here.
PKD's 5th wife, Tessa, blogs here.
Philip K. Dick and Religion.
An interview with PKD by Frank C. Bertrand, who follows this blog
Philip K. Dick Fan Site
Neuroscientist/Public Intellectual Dr.V.S. Ramachandran on Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (10 minutes):